The Detroit Tigers are leading the American League Central division by a mere 1 1/2 games over the Kansas City Royals. The Royals have not been to the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985, and after already spending time atop the AL Central, they are ready to get back to October. While the Tigers no longer have a strong hold on the division, I still believe that they will be back in the World Series.
Prior to the season, I picked the Washington Nationals to defeat the Detroit Tigers in seven games. I still hold true to that prediction. Even though the Tigers are on pace to finish with the fewest wins since they went 81-81 in 2010, I believe that this team still has something special inside of them.
Just look at Detroit's rotation. They have three former Cy Young award winners in Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and David Price, along with very formidable number four and five starters in Rick Porcello and Anibal Sanchez, respectively. Believe it or not, the Tigers' rotation has been susceptible to some bad luck. Their rotation has a higher ERA (3.71) than FIP (3.49). Even though the difference is minimal, over a long period of time the difference can really make a big difference.
There are four teams in the American League with a higher winning percentage than the Tigers, the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels, and Baltimore Orioles, in that order. Two of those three of teams starting rotations have had better luck than expected. The Athletics' have a 3.34 ERA and a 3.86 FIP. The Orioles have a 3.89 ERA and a 4.41 FIP. Everyone ahead of them is bound to regress sometime this year.
While regular season statistics do not mean much towards a team's postseason chances, how "hot" or "cold" the team is plays a large factor. If the Tigers can really get it together and get rolling, while the teams ahead of them cool off, it could be a huge benefit.
One real issue for Detroit is their bullpen. Joakim Soria, their new acquisition via Texas, has a 10.38 ERA and a 9.83 FIP in 4 1/3 innings pitched. He was tagged with the loss on July 31st against the White Sox. Since then, however, Soria has thrown 2 2/3 shutout innings. Overall, the Tigers relief corps have the third-highest ERA (4.49) and sixth-highest FIP (3.97) in the majors. The Orioles, Athletics, and Angels all rank in the top 12 in ERA; while ranking in the top 16 in FIP.
If the Tigers want to go far into the postseason, their bullpen needs to remain stable. With that said, however, I have complete faith that they will be able to rebound. Of the four pitchers with over 40 innings pitched out of the bullpen, only Al Alburquerque has a worse FIP than his ERA, and he has the best ERA out of the bullpen. That includes Joe Nathan, who's 4.06 FIP is much better than his 5.36 FIP. Sure the bullpen has been terrible, but there looks to be light at the end of the tunnel.
The Tigers' defense also hurts. The Tigers have the fourth-worst UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games) in the majors, which does not mean they make the most errors, but that they are among the worst in the major leagues in range, arm, and other defensive metrics in the league. In terms of defensive runs saved, the Tigers rank second-worst in the MLB with a -45 runs below average.
Sometimes you have to substitute defense for offense. That is exactly what the Tigers are doing. The Tigers lineup includes the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, and Ian Kinsler. Although their defensive skills are not the best, their offense is superb. As a team, the Tigers have the second-highest OPS (.756), sixth-highest on-base percentage (.327) and fourth-highest wRC+ (107) in the majors.
World Series caliber teams sometimes have to substitute one area of their game to make themselves better in another. The Tigers rotation and hitting will take them deep into the playoffs, and while their bullpen and defense can been seen as liabilities, they made the substitutions necessary to put them in contention to win an American League title. And that is what the Tigers might just do this year.